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Meditation myth buster #1 - "I'm too restless to meditate!"

So you've finally decided to try out this whole "meditation" thing to see if it's for you. You set aside a nook of your bedroom for the occasion, light some candles for atmosphere, put your phone on mute, plop down on your swanky new cushion, and get cracking.

The first breath feels great -- like you've finally landed on earth after drifting up in the clouds for too long. The second breath lets you unwind just a little bit more. So far so good!

By your fifth breath, however, you notice an itch that keeps distracting you, so you quickly scratch it to "get it out of the way." By your tenth breath, you find yourself hyper-focusing on the sensations in your legs. Do they always feel this heavy? Maybe you should quickly adjust, just so you're not distracted.

By breath fifteen, you're fixating on some paperwork you forgot to submit to your boss. You try to come back to your breath, but you're so distracted by the thought of this unfinished business, you can no longer sit still. Vibrating with agitation, you jump to your feet, log onto your work email, and leave your meditation cushion in the dust.

If this sounds familiar to you, you're certainly not alone! One of the first hurdles most meditators will encounter on their journey is the sensation of restlessness. Although more common for beginners, restlessness can be a challenge even for seasoned meditators, and especially for those practitioners who deal with ADHD, OCD, or anxiety.

I've spoken to many people over the years who are meditation-curious, but have suffered from a great deal of restlessness and agitation during their sittings, leading them to quickly abandon their practice, or to conclude that they're "just not cut out for meditation."

The good news is that there are many ways to work with restlessness that don't involve throwing in the towel altogether (or becoming a monk)! Although feelings of restlessness can be uncomfortable in the body, and can give rise to thoughts which seem impossible to ignore, the good news is that meditation is an ongoing practice, which means we can work with restlessness on both the physical and mental levels.

working with restlessness on the physical level

There are a variety of ways we can work with physical sensations of agitation or restlessness, both before and during our meditation sittings.

Light Yoga/Stretching

If you tend to feel a lot of restlessness in your body during your sittings (i.e. The tendency to shift around a lot, frequently open your eyes, tense up your muscles, change your posture, etc.), you might want to do a little light stretching, or even a quick 5-minute yoga session before you begin your meditation proper. Allowing yourself this extra time to warm up the muscles and gently wring out any tension will likely help you sit with more stability, stillness, and comfort. And when the body is able to relax and be still, the mind will more readily follow.

Walking Meditation

For those who might be dealing with a bout of more intense restlessness, or chronic physical pain, walking meditation is a great alternative to sitting! In walking meditation, we align body and mind by focusing on physical sensations in the present moment as we slowly walk around our home, backyard, a hiking trail, etc. Practitioners often find it helpful to focus on physical sensations in the feet specifically, as these sensations are often the strongest. You may even wish to silently repeat "left, right" as your left and right feet touch the ground, or even a mantra ("Arrived" when the left foot touches the ground, "home" when the right foot touches down. You can get creative with this!)

Change Up Your Meditation Posture

If your body isn't built to pretzel itself into a traditional full-lotus sitting position, fear not! There are tons of postures to work with. You might prefer sitting in a basic cross-legged position on the floor, on a cushion, or even bolstering yourself up on multiple cushions. Many practitioners prefer to sit in a straight-backed chair, kneel using a meditation bench, or even to lay down while meditating. There's no harm in changing things up if you feel that you're hitting a wall! It's possible that a lot of your physical restlessness will be resolved simply by finding a meditation position that's comfortable for you. The position should ideally feel comfortable and stable enough that you can maintain it with a minimum of shifting around during your session.

working with restlessness on the mental level

Make a To-Do List Before You Begin

If your mind is flooded with all the things you need to get done as soon as you get yourself on the cushion, you might benefit from writing out a quick to-do list before you dive in. Take a moment to organize your thoughts and scribble down all those ideas/errands you're worried you might lose track of. Or, if your mind feels full of thoughts, worries, or concerns, you might wish to have a quick journaling session before you begin. If you notice thoughts about your "to-dos" cropping up during your session, you can gently remind yourself that you already wrote it all down, and that "future you" will take care of it!

Use a Different Meditation Anchor

If concentrating on your body causes you to fixate on your physical discomfort, or you find your breath sensations too subtle to focus on when restlessness arises, try to shift the focus of your meditation. Perhaps spend the session focusing on all the sounds in your environment as they arise, moment by moment, or doing a visualization practice such as the mountain meditation to help ground you. Remember, your practice is all about finding what works for YOU, and that might change from day-to-day depending on how rested you are, external stressors, physical pain symptoms, etc. Don't be afraid to change it up, and to approach your practice with a sense of curiosity, even on days when it doesn't seem to be "going well."

Soothing the Inner Child

Often, when our minds are very agitated, every thought seems deadly serious and urgent to us. It's as if there's a little child inside, pulling on our pant leg for attention while we're trying to get on with our practice. "Hey, look at me! This thought is VERY important! Don't ignore me!"

One of the most important insights meditation has to offer is that our thoughts aren't as serious or as gravely important as we often think they are. When we meditate, we have the opportunity to stop identifying so strongly with our thoughts, and to start observing them with a little more objectivity, without getting so caught up in their content.

When our minds are restless, it can seem almost impossible to not get wrapped up in our thoughts. I've found a technique that's helpful for me is to tend to the thoughts very gently, tenderly even, as if they're a young version of myself, my "inner child," who might just be feeling a little overwhelmed or vulnerable.

I'll often soothe my inner child (silently): "Hey buddy! I know you're there. I know you think that problem is very urgent, but everything's okay. Come sit with me and breathe for a while. You're safe." I might even smile or laugh at some of the sillier content that plays and replays in my mind. By using a little tenderness, and a little levity, we can gain perspective on our mental narratives without judging ourselves, or trying to suppress our thoughts.

Meditate With Your Eyes Open

For those who have suffered from past trauma, or are perhaps trying to sustain a practice in an environment that doesn't feel safe, either physically or emotionally, closing their eyes for the duration of a meditation session can feel akin to skydiving with a blindfold on. If you find yourself constantly opening your eyes to scan around the room while meditating, perhaps you might benefit from meditating with your eyes open. This is a common technique in many traditions, including Zen. You might wish to sit facing a blank wall, and simply let your eyes go "soft," or to place your gaze somewhere in the middle-distance, not focusing on any one feature of the room in particular. You could also give candle meditation a try (gazing gently at a flame as your meditation object). Always be gentle with yourself, and remember that it's okay to stop or take a break if you're feeling triggered or unsafe.

If you try one or more of the above, and it's just NOT happening for you, don't beat yourself up! Meditation is a practice, and each day is going to be a completely different experience than the last. If you just can't handle sitting due to restlessness, perhaps you can do some mindfulness practices instead. Try doing your daily run while focusing on your physical sensations instead of your thoughts, or use your daily chores as an opportunity to be mindful/drop into your body. There's no one-size-fits-all approach to meditation and mindfulness, so at the end of the day, the best practice is the one that you stick with.

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